Photo credit : EL SIGLO ES 

The Caimanes community, part of the Los Vilos commune in Chile, has for decades been suffering negative effects from the presence of the Minera Los Pelambres copper mine. This mine, belonging to Antofagasta Minerals, part of the Luksic Group and owned by London-listed Antogasta plc, has faced multiple legal battles over its actions. Today, it is again facing calls to halt its tailings dam operation and the causes of the toxic air cloud.

This process began in May 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The community argues that the company should not be allowed to take advantage of the lack of oversight due to the pandemic and put people’s lives at risk.

The Caimanes community is yet another area that should be considered a sacrificial zone as a result of the mining activity of Minera Los Pelambres, which has left the region without access to clean water. Members of the community have to rely on bottled water, with those who cannot afford this left with no choice but to drink water that the Medical College of Chile has found to be contaminated. The estuary has dried up and the Minera Los Pelambres “El Mauro” tailings dam sits on top of the area’s underground water reservoirs.

The lawsuit brought against Los Pelambres is a response to the airborne dust caused by the company’s mining operations. The Court of Appeals of La Serena is in the process of making a decision on the case. The community awaits the Court’s response.

In November this year, the lawyer in charge of the appeal, Esteban Vilches, explained in an interview with Radio Vilos that an application for protection has been filed on behalf of the people of Caimanes with the aim of protecting their health, and in some cases their lives. This comes as a result of the high levels of toxicity in the town. There are many older people who live in the area, some of whom suffer from respiratory diseases or asthma. In response to the application for protection, the Los Pelambres mining company has maintained its traditional position. It admits that the airborne dust pollutes, but claims that it pollutes little or at least below the level classed as “acceptable” according to regulations and therefore it will not affect the health or the lives of people.

The issue at present is that no clear assessment of the impact of the dust on people’s health exists. The Chilean government’s environmental monitoring body is not clear on the impacts that airborne dust can cause in the community, as it does not have the necessary tools to accurately measure the existing levels of contamination in the territory. The only records that Minera Los Pelambres has made available come from laboratories that work for the mining company. These records are totally lacking impartiality and so this information cannot be considered reliable. The state of contamination needs to be investigated and analysed.

The community is demanding is that the dam’s operation be suspended until the levels of contamination have been established. However, they ask that the assessment be done by a body without links to the mining operations, by laboratories that are not controlled by Los Pelambres. This is a preventive and precautionary measure to avoid putting the community at risk. 126 people from the community, who are members of the Committee for the Defence of the Community of Caimanes, have filed an appeal for protection against airborne dust. This same group of people has also filed a lawsuit against Minera Los Pelambres in the court of Santiago.

According to community sources, Minera Los Pelambres is offering money to those who filed the lawsuit as a means of persuading them to drop legal proceedings. The Caimanes community, which has been fragmented by the conflict caused by the mine, is calling for Minera Los Pelambres to act with transparency. The community hopes that the courts will condemn the company for their acts and that the people of Caimanes will be able to heal from the pain and suffering they have endured, as well as from the impact on the health of those who have been victims of the mining activity of Los Pelambres for more than 20 years.